Meeting people, not places

Travel Writers & Books — By on July 13, 2006 at 11:50 am

Anyone who has traveled much has no doubt discovered that the best experiences on the road often result from encounters with people rather than places.  That point is emphasized again in a recent Washington Post story by travel writer Tahir Shah.  In an article about books that inspire wanderlust, Shah recounts a meeting he once had with the legendary explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger.

As a student almost 20 years ago, I made a pilgrimage to a barren hillside in northern Kenya. It was summer, and the heat was insufferable. A herd of zebra had collapsed in the shade of a thorn tree at the base of the hill. Nearby, a Samburu warrior was standing on one foot, the other propped up against a rock, as he picked his teeth with the end of a stick. I asked him in Swahili if he knew where I could find the mzungu , the white man. He pointed to a tin-roofed adobe shack encircled by low cacti, halfway up the hill. I struggled up the slope, clambered over the thorns and rapped at the tin door. Nothing. Then, suddenly, the door was yanked open, and a tall old Englishman in tweeds lurched into its frame. That was how I first met Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the world’s most famous living explorer.

Standing there, I felt like Stanley finding Livingstone. My head was spinning because of the heat. “Do you have any water?” I asked pathetically. Thesiger peered down at me. Then he smiled. “I have just made some nice hot tea,” he said.

During the days I spent at Thesiger’s shack, he explained in a soft, aristocratic voice that we can all be explorers — that it’s a matter of enduring hardship, of observing and, most important, of seeking out people and learning from their company. Thesiger’s lesson for me, a young wannabe explorer in search of a mentor, was to search for people rather than places. Find great people, he would say, and you will find great places.

Thesiger’s most famous book is Arabian Sands, which is considered by many to be one of the best travel books ever written.  It is about the several years that he spent trekking across the desert of the Arabian peninsula and living with Bedouin tribes.  I posted a previous entry about Shah in March.  His most recent book, The Caliph’s House, is about moving to Morocco with his family and renovating a house there.

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